Tom Neary has lived in Washburn for 30-plus years and has been sculpting objects out of metal for about the same number of years, although he said sculpting out of metal "just happened."
There aren't any other materials Neary sculpts with, just metals, although he said he has sculpted a little bit with casting metals.
Around age 16 or 17, Neary said he started welding, talking his dad into buying a welding machine, and built stock cars. He also worked in construction and in welding on heavy equipment, then went to work for the power plants as a welder. Neary has been sculpting since 1979, when he made the first sculpture he put a date on. Someone wanted him to make something for them, he said, and then he went to art shows in the mid to early1980s.
Tom Neary, a metal sculptor who lives in Washburn, works on a piece of metal in his garage shop. Neary has been creating metal sculptures for more than 30 years, sculpting many objects around the state such as the silhouette of geese in flight at Kenmare, the turtle in Turtle Lake, and the heart in McClusky.
To get the word out about his metal sculptures, Neary also went to trade shows, he said, and would take part of a sculpture he was working on and display it and those shows would draw major business for him.
Neary doesn't keep track of the hours he spends in his garage working with metal, and he's not on a set schedule. He shuts down for supper and again around 9 p.m., he said, and toward the end of a project, he'll work 10 to 12 hours a day to finish it up. Before working on his metal sculptures on a full-time basis, Neary worked maintenance and construction and then would work on his sculptures afterward.
The process of sculpting an object out of metal involves a lot of fabricating, Neary said. He takes little pieces out of a big sheet of metal and then puts the little pieces back together, he explained. He also uses a mannequin as well as a Barbie and Ken doll. "Barbie and Ken are one foot tall, so I multiplied by five to get five-feet tall statues," Neary noted. He also uses coats to get the folds in the material accurate and uses the Internet to get pictures, he added.
Neary's most recent project is of three middle school band students made of metal that stand five feet tall. It's a commissioned piece by Jeff Eckroth from Bismarck, he said, for his parents' anniversary. Eckroth's parents both taught junior high music, which is why the three band kids were chosen as the subject, Neary explained. It took two years to finish this sculpture, he said, but he didn't work on it full time since he taught a welding class at Bismarck State College for one semester. "But that put me way behind," he remarked.
Most of the metal that Neary uses in his sculpting comes from the welding shop in Turtle Lake or Porter Brothers, some place that has a sheerer, he said. He uses all new metal for the most part, Neary noted, because if he uses new, he can get the same metal each time. If he uses found metal, though, it's hard to find the same exact type at another time, he explained, and found metal is hard to use.
A favorite part of sculpting with metal, Neary said, is when you come up with an answer to something you've been fretting over, like when figuring out how to make a part of the sculpture look right. Another favorite part, he added, is going back to look at something you did a long time ago and think, "I'm not that good and I shouldn't have been able to do that."
The times when you're stumped and just getting out and doing the work are two aspects that are difficult, Neary said. "I'm a really good procrastinator," he noted. "I can walk around and kick stones all day instead of getting to work."
Neary has created many metal sculptures in the state. Some sculptures he's created include the silhouette of geese in flight in Kenmare, the giant turtle at Turtle Lake, the heart in McClusky, Misty the Mermaid in Riverdale, The Risen Christ at the Catholic church in Washburn, the eagle in Bismarck's Custer Park, Lewis and Clark with Mandan Chief Sheheke at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, and Seaman the dog at Fort Mandan in Washburn.
There isn't a clear-cut favorite sculpture that Neary created, but his wife likes Seaman the dog at Fort Mandan, he said. The eagle in Bismarck was his first major piece, he noted.
The next metal sculpting project for Neary is of a couple of smaller objects, including a grave marker, a sign for a cemetery, and a sign for a church. "It's nothing as big as the middle school kids sculpture," he remarked.